Developing hydroponic systems for vegetables sown at high density
Priority AxisTechnological and Social Innovation
Project budget2 857 450 €
ERDF amount1 714 470 €
The program area has a strong focus on stimulating sustainable, resource-efficient production through technological improvement. Innovative production improvements by growers by introduction of novel hydroponic cultivation systems offers great potential to produce high-quality crops with reduced environmental impact. Hydroponics benefits growers by increased productivity, by improved efficient management of crop cultivation while controlling diseases that influence yield and revenue. More than 90% of greenhouse cultivation of fruit vegetables has shifted to hydroponics; leafy vegetables grown at low plant density (e.g. lettuce) are starting to implement systems. However, no straightforward solutions are available for vegetable crops traditionally densely sown in rows in the field. Investing in a novel hydroponic system developed in co-creation with the stakeholders and adequate technology transfer to adapt skills for implementation will therefore be a key output from Hy4Dense.
The overall objective is to develop a soil-free cultivation system to grow densely sown crops (such as lamb’s lettuce, watercress, spinach or rocket) by upgrading existing early stage prototypes to efficient hydroponic growing systems. This technological innovation (TRL3 to TRL6) will allow soilless cultivation of densely sown crops. Technology transfer will allow for uptake at manufacturers and growers level. Densely sown crops are important for the local economy in the program area. Increasing demand steers production. Development of a novel hydroponic system for densely sown crops in greenhouses, will enable producers throughout the program area to address the challenges they currently face regarding efficient management of crop cultivation and capacity to deal with diseases that reduce yield/quality and revenue. The system will provide for an environmentally and economically viable cultivation, sustainable for producers and more aesthetically and hygienically acceptable to consumers.
- base infrastructure to pilot, test and optimize the cultivation of densely sown vegetables using hydroponic-based systems installed in BE, UK and NL; the design for this base infrastructure will be derived from the small-scale prototyping and testing phase
- growers guide with cultivation advice for lamb's lettuce, spinach and rocket, addressing key parameters including climate conditions, nutrient solutions and varieties;
- technical-economic feasibility study with final design specifications, automation concepts and a profitability report;
The wide horticultural chain can benefit from these outputs. In particular, they will offer growers new opportunities to meet increasingly strict demands from legislation and retail without compromising crop yield and quality. Manufacturers will also benefit from the project outputs through supply and installation of (parts of) the system. As a result, competitiveness of businesses in the program area will increase.
Cross border approach
In some parts of the 2 Seas region, hydroponics are applied intensively for growing fruit vegetables in greenhouses, and are gradually being implemented for leafy vegetables such as lettuce. Flanders has experience with Nutrient Film Technique (NFT) for growing lettuce, and the Netherlands with Deep Flow Technique (DFT). There are also differences in cultivation experiences for densely sown crops: Flanders focuses on lamb’s lettuce, the UK on watercress, baby spinach and rocket, and in the Netherlands, baby spinach is the most cultivated crop of the four.
Yet, the challenges are similar. To develop a new system for densely sown crops, knowledge of and experience from NFT and DFT, and cultivation of different densely sown crops is required. Cross-border cooperation will facilitate existing and future knowledge-exchange and sharing of experience. Demonstration of optimised prototypes in all 3 locations will boost the grower’s trust throughout the program area.
The development of a hydroponic cultivation system fit for use by growers of densely sown vegetable crops is based on information from testing and exchange. In this first project phase small scale experiments are currently going on, resulting in new specific technological needs for the hydroponic system. The small scale experiments will be concluded in September 2020.
Breeders, growers and manufacturers are represented directly in co-creation groups in Belgium, the Netherlands and UK. Also French stakeholders are involved through the Belgian network in France. A first meeting of the co-creation groups has been held in May and June 2019.
Small steps in the design with first prototypes are being evaluated in small scale experiments. The partners have collected a range of seeds (for different plant varieties of densely sown crops) for testing and started up their first small scale tests (in the greenhouses in B, NL and UK) with prototypes developed by Howest.
Specific test results regarding germination, growth and algae growth are exchanged between the partners and will be regularly exchanged with the different target groups through the meetings of the co-creation groups and communication acitvities along the project.
New knowledge, acquired through testing and in exchange meetings, feeds into the specifications for a base hydroponic infrastructure to be tested and demonstrated in the pilot systems in Belgium, the Netherlands and UK.